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It took him only a few years of working in the industry before he was named president of Paramount Pictures - at the age of 29. The one quality that neither Jaffe nor his employers took into account, and that finally made such a job impossible for him, was passion.

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''I had a big enough ego,'' Jaffe says, ''to move into a job like that at 29 and say, 'Sure, give me enough money to work with and I'll fix things for you.' I wasn't old enough to know that I wasn't supposed to say 'yes.' ''

During Jaffe's two years as studio head, he made some very big films for Paramount - among them ''The Godfather'' and ''Love Story.'' But he was restless. Even though he had a lot of autonomy, he disliked working in the ''confines of bureaucracy.'' He wanted to call his own shots, so back he went into film production.

''This has got to be, first and foremost, a creative business,'' he says. ''We don't manufacture underwear. I've got to believe - I do believe - there's a way to make good and thoughtful and entertaining movies and still make it work as a business - and not just by dealing with numbers.

''We've got hired guns running a lot of movie studios today - people who aren't first and foremost interested in the motion picture business. People who don't understand that unless you make a good film, the numbers don't mean anything. That may be starting to reverse itself. There were some really expensive clunkers put out this Christmas. The numbers have gotten ridiculously high and we may start seeing more decisions made by motion picture people.''

Whether or not that happens, Jaffe has no intention of involving himself in bureaucracy again. He's in the enviable position of being able to select his own properties, then spend a loving two years developing each one. He's been remarkably successful at it, falling seriously short only once with ''Bad Company.''

''It hurts a whole lot,'' he says, ''when you make a picture like 'Bad Company,' of which I'm still very proud and nobody - but nobody - goes to see it. . . . I'm very vulnerable to a picture not working because it's something I really care about. It's not just 12 reels or two pounds of film. It's something I believed in, and people are telling me they don't care.''

But there are two strains in almost all of Jaffe's successful films that set them apart - and are also almost totally anachronistic to the life and personality of the man producing them. Jaffe, who talks and thinks passionately, sometimes excessively, seems remarkably evenhanded in dealing with the differing points of view of his characters.

The fact that ''Taps'' is seen thematically in so many ways illustrates Jaffe's facility for balancing conflicting points of view. ''I am never,'' he says, ''without a personal point of view, but I think it's pretentious - and presumptuous - on the part of the filmmaker to load that view. It is very easy to set up straw figures to be knocked down. I think that ultimately the success of both 'Kramer' and 'Taps' is due to the fact that viewers didn't feel there were heroes and villains. Life for most people is not made up of convenient blacks and whites; we live in gray areas, and we deal with them.

''There was no resolution in 'Kramer.' We made the protagonists real people with real virtues and frailties. We've done the same thing with 'Taps.' When we meet the cadet commandant, he is a boy who has bought it all. When we leave him, he is a boy who has come to understand that you can't buy anything 'all or nothing.' The whole world isn't just black and white.''